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Walking on Eggshells Around A Person With Bipolar Disorder

Recently I was contacted by someone (let’s call her Ms. X) who wanted to end a friendship with a bipolar person and asked me how to do it with the least harm possible. I talked with Ms. X and it appears that her bipolar friend had been doing some very hurtful things. I asked Ms. X if she had talked to her friend about these things. Ms. X said that no, she hadn’t.

So why is terminating a friendship preferable to talking about the problem?

Bipolars Behaving Badly

I have bipolar disorder and I know that my mood leaks into everyday life, no matter how much I don’t want it. I’m very conscientious when it comes to keeping my bipolar hidden from others, but let’s face it, sometimes I fail. These failures don’t tend to be very dramatic, but it doesn’t mean that other people never get hurt. And for some bipolars, their mood swings can be very hurtful indeed.

eggs_in_cartonIt’s not much fun to be around someone with:

And so on. Each person with bipolar has their own special list as to what bipolar symptoms slip into their lives.

Can’t We Just Talk About This?

It’s true that when a person is in the midst of a depressive or manic episode discussing their behavior may not be all that helpful. It’s difficult for someone in the middle of a brain storm to pay attention to anything other than the lightening in their head. Nevertheless, at some point, someone needs to say something.

While actions committed in an episode can be more indicative of the disease than of the person, it can still hurt nonetheless.

People though, seem extremely reluctant to just say so. For some reason they don’t want to say they were hurt by the actions of the person with bipolar disorder.

But I’ll Break Them!

That’s not really true. You can’t cause bipolar any more than you can cure it. Now I’m not suggesting that a raging fight with your significant other will have no effect, but I am saying that discussing how you feel, asserting yourself and defining boundaries are reasonable things to do and when done calmly and lovingly, are good for both of you.

puzzleWon’t They Just Figure Out Themselves How I Feel?

Now that’s just silly. No one can read your mind. And a bipolar most especially can’t do it when they’re in the grips of their illness. No, you’re going to have to be a big boy or girl and actually talk to them.

So, How Do I Discuss A Problem With a Person With Bipolar Disorder?

Pretty much like you would discuss it with anyone else you care about, I’d expect. Try to get your thoughts together, and then find a quiet time when you’re both OK to sit down and rationally discuss the problem. A good sentence is:

“I felt hurt when you ____. That was not OK with me.”

You may wish to follow it up with something like:

“I understand that is part of your illness, but I still need to express my feelings around it.”

And then finally,

“How can we can work together to prevent this from happening again?”

That’s how I would deal with anyone. A mental illness doesn’t make the person a block of C-4 explosive.

(This is not to suggest that some people don’t have anger issues and won’t react well to this sort of conversation. If you feel that is the case then I recommend having the conversation in a therapist’s office. Again, that’s not specific to bipolar disorder, that’s just a fact for some people.)

Why Should I Bother?

Well, that’s a question left to the reader, but what I will say is that if you care about this person, then they deserve to know what’s going on. They deserve to know how you feel. They deserve to know what hurt you. They deserve the chance to make it better. They deserve the opportunity to prevent this in the future.

It betters both of you to deal with an issue openly and honestly. You can let go of your hurt and anger, the person with bipolar disorder has the chance to improve themselves, and your relationship becomes stronger. Everybody wins.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter.

This entry was posted in How Others See Bipolar, Impact of Bipolar, Losing Friends, Talking About Bipolar, Understanding Mental Illness and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Walking on Eggshells Around A Person With Bipolar Disorder

  1. kate says:

    suicide obsession and self harm aren’t usual indicators of bp

  2. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Kate,

    That is a good point regarding self-harm although suicidal thoughts are part of the diagnostic criteria for bipolar (from the DSM-IV):

    “recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying), recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide”

    - Natasha

  3. Mark says:

    Communication is definetly the key and being honest and real. I used to struggle with humoring people when “storytime” began and reality left the building for awhile. Without being argumentative, I never really knew how to tell a loved one “hey you’re on a trip to the moon and you got the facts a bit off” without either upsetting them or hurting their feelings. BS sessions I used to have with my buddys used to make the fish we caught 3 times bigger and the girl we went out with Sat night alot prettier so I kinda understand the feeling to bend the truth sometimes to either feel good or feel a little more important then life has you at the moment.

    The real change came for me was when I found the courage to ask. I came just so close to walking away. You really do feel like you’re hurting someone by presenting the truth to them, especially when the truth is hey friend you’re Mentally Ill today and not doing well. So I finally asked. Babe, when you’re on your trips off planet earth, what should I do? She said tell me, it’s bring me back. She said her mind is like a wild mustand that gets loose sometimes from the barn and doesn’t even know its running loose sometimes until someone tells her.

    I’m fortunate right now, the ride is calm, but bumps and turns I’m sure will come. Best advice I can give is not to give up, be truthful in handling the illnesses, take care of yourself FIRST and talk your brains out. Hopefully by being open and honest we can get some cures.

  4. Sarah says:

    thank you so much for this. I’ve been tip toeing for a couple years and right now, my b/f is coming out of an depressive wave. The sad part is that when he is deep in it, the smallest missteps (or big ones that I make, and, I am certainly not perfect, I have been known to say the wrong thing) will send him deeper and into a place where he starts taking about how we maybe shouldn’t be together and how he has never lived up to anyone’s needs etc. During light moments, he still has his insecurities but they are certainly not as black or white as they are in the darker times.
    I know more lies ahead…good and challenging. It comforts me to remind myself that sometimes what is said in his darkest hours is more his disease than him.

  5. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Mark,

    No doubt about it, the truth can definitely be a smack in the face.

    Congratulations. I give you big kuddos for addressing the issue and being honest, and to your partner for wanting your honesty. You guys are great role models :)

    And I do agree, you have to take care of yourself first. We all do.

    - Natasha

  6. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Sarah,

    That’s really tough. I know what it is to have any little thing make you feel worse. I’ve been there.

    But remember, that’s not your fault. That’s the disease. And we all say the “wrong” things. We’re human.

    You didn’t mention if your boyfriend is in therapy, but it sounds like that might be helpful. If you both want the relationship to work, therapy can give you tools so you can communicate with each other more affectively. And when he is really down, he needs to understand what is him and what is the disease too.

    As Mark said, talk your brains out. It will help both of you.

    - Natasha

  7. Rosie Fairchild says:

    While some issues are obviously exacerbated by mood episodes, and growing up with bipolar can make it difficult for an individual to develop healthy coping patterns and relationships – not every failing is the result of bipolar.

    I think figuring out how to respond to a behavior has a lot to do with what is driving it. If the behavior is genuinely out of the person’s control (eg, hallucinations, lack of concentration or energy fluctuations), there’s not much anyone can do, unless they’re an appropriate professional.

    But we can try to influence other behaviors that have an element of choice – including how an individual chooses to cope with their moods. If someone is turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms like self harm, engaging in substance abuse, or refusing to enter appropriate treatment – friends and family members can and should hold the individual accountable for their decisions. It goes without saying they should also support making better decisions, of course!

    Thinking of my own relationship with a BP sibling, I’ve struggled to respond appropriately to the mix of issues she presents – some that are directly about her bipolar (eg, risk taking with lack of insight, catatonic depression), those that are personality issues (eg, self harm in response to stress, lack of empathy in relationships), and those that cross over (eg, trouble sticking with treatment, leading to a failure to develop better coping mechanisms or recognise early warning signs).

    But I’m able to respond much more skillfully now that I’ve separated these out, and I’ve benefited enormously from my own therapy (even though I don’t have BP)!

  8. Natasha Tracy says:

    Hi Rosie,

    To quote you, “not every failing is the result of bipolar”. And I completely agree.

    Just as a note, sussing out bipolar from personality behaviors is tough. Self-harm may or may no be personality related, and a lack of empathy may be a dampened emotion due to medication.

    It must be hard to watch that, as a sibling. Congrats on sticking in there and getting your own therapy. I’m a big believer in everyone getting therapy – those of us with a mental illness just have a more obvious need.

    - Natasha

  9. Mark says:

    Knowledge I agree is just as powerful as the honesty and the communication. My youngest boy was diagnosed ADHD. So, the doc explains in his lingo Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Ok doc, what do you suggest. Therapy, structure, love, etc. Reality is, I can doze off watching Barney with my boy for 30 minutes, wake up, and the Fridge door is off its hinges, the heating vents are filled with matchbox cars and the septic system is stuffed with Lincoln Logs and the Plumber is left scratching his head.

    You mix a pinch of ADHD or OCD or ODD or MR in with a BP and each episode is a different sandwich. While the last 2 months have been relatively calm and stable for my dear friend and me, the volcano is smoking. ADHD is winning more battles than I care to mention and the care dont care needle can go from ok were fine to get out of my way and leave me alone. Sick people desperately want a break from being sick. And pretending you’re not sick maybe a nice 3 day vacation but reality does set in whether we want it to or not and there always seems to be a mess to clean up. God bless people who can take a hundred punches and keep fighting.

  10. anonymous says:

    I am diagnosed as bi-polar and I lean towards being chronically depressed for the majority of my time jumping straight into short-lived, manic episodes. After years of trial and error, I am currently on multiple prescriptions that work well for me, right now. However, I recently lost medical coverage and was forced to go without medication for a little over 1 month.

    During that time my ex (and father of my 3yr and 5yr old boys) moved back into my house while transitioning from one job to another. He had left a little over a year prior to that (because of not being able to cope with my ups and downs) and moved back to our hometown area (5 hours drive from where we currently live.) He moved back, for the most part, because our custody agreement dictated our son would join kindergarten in the city I lived in and he would need to either move back or accept less parenting time.

    Anyhow, he moved back just as I was weining from my meds, and my ability to control my resentment and bursts of anger (over insensitive comments from him) was at its lowest and then got worse. He was just supposed to be staying here for a bit while he ramped up at his new job and found a place of his own. But we fell into temptation and ended up trying to make things work. We tried to get back together. Dumb move that we both knew was WAY too premature.

    I feel that I cannot find myself again with him here. He fails to see my bi-polar as an actual illness and will not be supportive or empathetic, yet is insulted and angry if I imply he might be just that. Hi refuses to just let me “act however I want” and not defend himself. I tried all I can to show him the cause and effect of his actions and how he can help to not trigger an episode. But he consistently states that he shouldn’t have to and that I am the problem with my irrational feelings. I understand this absolute fact. I am bi-polar. I know this. Does he?

    I am an extremely intuitive person and I understand completely when I am reacting to him in with irrational behavior. He does and says things that are openly disrespectful to me (in my opinion) and then refuses to acknowledge my feelings as justified when I calmly bring them up. He, instead, jumps straight to defending himself and whatever act that may have been the subject of conversation. He does this without intending to hurt me, but it does deeply, mainly because it shows how little creed he actually gives my thoughts. So in turn I react even worse and things escalate very quickly.

    He says he loves me and doesn’t want me to feel hurt. He however does not know how to diffuse the situations when they occur and makes it much much worse EVERY SINGLE TIME. Your lists of things NOT to say to someone during these episodes are direct quotes of his.

    He’s terribly hurtful and I don’t believe I can keep myself together around him. I’ve given him books to read on loving someone with bi-polar and he says he’s read them but thinks it’s a team effort and he won’t start with any of the techniques they describe until I’m willing to work with him. (I go to counseling twice a month and meet with a Pschiatrist once per month additionally.)

    I’ll give him specific instructions on things not to do (such as mention an ex-girlfriend/fling while we were apart), and he chooses to do them over and over, all the while, explaining to me that my feelings against [whatever the case may be] are irrational and I shouldn’t feel that way because my perception of the situation is off. You can understand this infuriates me and the fights get worse and worse. He resorts to blame and guilt throwing. “It’s all about you!” “When is it anyone else’s turn to get some attention?” “WHEN IS IT MY TURN?!”

    I’ve tried time and time again to explain to him that I’m in no position to help him out of his funk and he needs to just take care of himself and try not to make my life worse. To no avail.

    The main problem here is this: I truly do not believe he has what it takes to be in a relationship with me. And whereas, I do not blame him for this (I wouldn’t ever choose to love a person with bi-polar), I am VERY resentful that he continues to protest that he does have what it takes. He says he loves me and CAN handle the ups and downs, but then proves otherwise. It’s not human for someone who believes the pain I’m in to continue to do what he does. And it’s not right to stay with someone if you think they are a manipulative faker, that means he does this all unintentionally, without understanding the damage being caused. I believe I have exhausted every means I can think of to tell him how it is with me and how seriously he should think about the commitment he needs to make to us. Therefore, I need him to evaluate the situation for himself and make an honest decision on both our behalves.

    Perception is my reality for the moments I’m in BPDs throws. I’m still ramping up again on my meds and I haven’t anything left to give him.

    He – however – continues to say that he can handle it if I would just stop [insert irrational behavior here]. I try to tell him that will not happen and he is just making it worse, but he gets very defensive and starts throwing blame at me right away. He needs to constantly point out that I’m the one with the problem and he should be given credit for just sticking around. This is an endless, reoccurring argument that ends tragically each time.

    Just being there is not enough when you roll your eyes and walk away when there is a problem. If you ignore my crying until I’ve exhausted myself and passed out, that does not constitute “sticking around” anyway.

    How HOW can I make him see that it is OK for him to not be the kind of person capable of putting up with (let alone helping) someone like me? Because we are both suffering immensely. He wears me down and convinces me that we are meant to be together and it is very hard to resist that when there are small children involved. But then I CRASH to the floor when he blatently disregards my feelings and then tops it off by blaming me and telling me he will not put up with me and no one else ever will either.

    I need for HIM to understand that he is not right for the job and that he is making it worse. I can’t move out (it’s my house) and he hasn’t enough money to put down for a new place yet. I NEED him to understand that making it worse is a DANGEROUS game that he is capable of controlling. When I try to say this to him, he immediately responds defensively and goes into his “you are so self-absorbed” “what about my issues?” mode. My only answer to him is to explain that I did not ask for him to move back in, I did not want to try getting back together until he found a place and we started counseling.

    I tell him I have nothing to offer him and he has no right to waltz into my house and my life again, expecting me to get over everything I’ve got going on so that I could concentrate on him. I told him from the moment he moved in that I was in no position to deal with his “poor me”s and he agreed to not go there.

    For him to continue to do this when he sees me on the floor sobbing after a fight and hyperventilating just trying to regain composure, shows me he isn’t right for the job. I want him to gracefully bow out and walk away, but he is obsessed with placing blame and being the good guy. He WILL NOT ACCEPT the notion that he could be expected to be the mature one when I am in that state. He says he shouldn’t need to and won’t let me treat him that way. I don’t want him to let me hurt him (I don’t say hurtful things anyway I mainly just get pissed when he texts the girl I’ve discussed right in front of me and tells her she looks hot in her Halloween costume. I think that is SOOO disrespectful. But, “they’re just friends and [I] need to accept that”) but he needs to understand the way he reacts when I get irrational kills me. And the thought of that just pisses him off and he throws punches (psychologically) at me.

    How can I get him to realize that my life is in danger as long as he continues to casually entertain the thought of us being together. That HE needs to stop trying to convince me that he can handle me when it’s obvious he will not put the effort in. He truly believes he shouldn’t have to and that my pain is something I choose to indulge in [just to piss him off]. Or, how do I find the courage to handle the guilt and get out of this on my own.

    He cannot handle me at my worst and doesn’t deserve me at my best.

    Anonymous

  11. Great info and right to the point.

  12. Robin says:

    My daughter is in the hospital and diagnosed with bipolar/personality disorder. Sge goes in waves of anger and acceptance. She is just starting meds and in denial that she needs them. She blames me for her having to stay in the hospital. What should I say when I see she is angry. She is 35.

  13. Sarah says:

    Hi Robin,
    I am 31 with bipolar disorder. I blamed other people for about two years, and still blame people while in an episode.

    You are so so important to your daughter right now. I don’t think it matters what you say, as long as you stick around. Her anger is not personal.

  14. Amy says:

    I have a friend that I have known for 20 years. She is bipolar and our friendship has been a roller coaster ride from the start. I am also ADD and finally have decided to go back on medication to help me. She doesn’t see it that way. It is always about her and her problems. I am tired of getting on the “roller coaster” with her because my family is suffering. My children love her but they don’t want to see the next episode of her losing everything including her mind. I can’t tell you the amount of time and the loss of energy I have spent trying to be her friend. Everyone is always out to get her, I am judgmental and cruel. The fact is I just don’t want to hear about how mean men are to her. She choices men that only want one thing from her, she is very promiscuous and naïve at the same time. Her children no longer live with her because of her bipolar disorder, and I am so thankful for that. They don’t need to be around that until she can get on some sort of medication plan and see an ongoing professional who can help her with her problems. My advice to anyone who has a friend that treats you like this, is be very careful what you say, because you could be writing the same type of letter early one morning. Mental illness is serious and it should be taken seriously!

  15. Eleanor says:

    I actually found this unhelpful, my sister has bipolar an is never there for me, her niece was abused sexually by her father and I have some health problems which I am scared of all while in temporary accommodation and going through the roughest times of our lives thus far, when I dared to tell my bipolar sister I get the same old bullying accusation of lies, put on your big girl trousers and get on with it crap she always gives me she doesn’t even care how her niece is or how I am so I confronted her said the way she talks to people judges people etc is not ok and she cannot hide behind her bipolar for everything like staying in bed all day every day etc she basically said yes I can and you need help because your needy called me a bad mother etc… Then because I wouldn’t just back down having read this like I always do and let it continue and apologise for things I haven’t done that she has fantasised and carry on being her support and getting nothing back she decided to threaten suicide as she always does if she doesn’t manage to get someone’s attention and force them to bend to her will and got herself checked into the local mental hospital… Again… When will someone help and actually tell her bipolar doesn’t get her out of everything it isn’t an excuse for everything. She has no empathy no sympathy I always have until now and I am just sick of it.
    In short talking about it doesn’t always work it depends on the person and how much they hide behind their diagnosis and how much they use it to get what they want.

  16. judy says:

    Yeah, to be fair, I imagine it must be hard to be on the other side, dealing with your bipolar loved one.

    First, the important stuff – when episodic, your loved one is probably in a pretty vulnerable place, unable to make sensible decisions AT THAT MOMENT depending on how bad their symptoms are, how impaired their judgements are, etc. Put your own judgements aside, assess the situation and act accordingly – namely, try to get them out of harms way if you can.

    It is possible your loved one may not have much insight regarding their actions. Bipolar can be rather extreme. Not uncommon to see substance abuse, hypersexuality, seriously bad decision making like insane spending, or taking crazy risks, etc. Not saying all bipolar folks are like this, just saying that it is not uncommon.

    Natasha, thanks for pointing out that sussing out “personality” from bipolar driven behavior is tough. It is important to consider changes in energy and sleep patterns, along with behavioral changes.

    And finally, do not feed into the illness. I have to throw this in because I do think people really do this, either unwittingly or on purpose. Judging from some of the comments above, it seems this is true for others with bipolar as well. If you are honest with yourself and admit that you may be unwittingly adding fuel to the fire, know that much can be worked out and communication is possible. Ignorance can be forgiven. If you are doing this on purpose on the other hand, it is time for you to stop talking about my psyche and to start delving into your own. Ask yourself pertinent questions like, “gee, why do I feel the need to kick people when they’re down?” for starters.

    I have also heard that one shouldn’t take bipolar driven behavior personally. To be fair, this is TOUGH, and maybe not really fair because some pretty horrible stuff can be said and done. It is also vague. What does this mean? Does it mean ignore it – hate the sin but not the sinner? Not entirely. I do think it requires a great deal of objectivity, though. It means weighing events against their “normal”. Perhaps your loved one is a holy terror when symptomatic, but a kind and considerate person when not. Perhaps they are generally responsible, but spent large sums of money when manic.

    Probably none of this is worth dealing with, and that is your perogative. But certainly two people interacting have thrown their own shit into the pot. It isn’t fair to simply move all the blame onto those with bipolar simply because it is easy and convenient to do so. And in all honesty, this happens FREQUENTLY and apparently, it is easy. I cannot tell you how many people have behaved BADLY, and scapegoated me to deflect from their own behavior. It is also tough on the person with bipolar because you are suddenly being accused of ALWAYS being a certain way, when in reality, said action is episodic. From my experience, I was accused of things that are patently untrue – which I suspect had more to do with offending someone (eg. religious values, philosophy, etc), therefore stirring their anger, than actually being true. Certainly, making judgements from this place is not cool if it were to happen to you.

  17. Kathryn Maertens says:

    Thanks for the insight you offer. I have a friend who has bipolar disorder and she has recently told me off (via facebook) and shut me out. I am hurt and sad for her because she has shut out most everyone in her life and I hoped that I would never be in this situation. It is hard because I really care about her and at the same time, I have really gotten hurt by her words…but I feel selfish for being hurt because she is the one who has to live with this illness. Truth is, if she called me right now I’d welcome her with open arms but she has shut me out. She thinks I don’t really care about her, if only for one second she could feel how my heart is breaking over her….she would know better :(

  18. frustrated says:

    I try this with my bipolar girlfriend of 2 and a half years every time she fails to deliver on a promise or does/says something that causes me harm or hurt.The problem I have is that she always manages to twist it round and blame me,or something else.I should be “more sensitive to her as she can’t help the way she acts” or she did it to make me see how I hurt her by asking her to be aware of what she’s doing.I get told I whinge too much,but she fails to see that if she made an effort to at least try and realise that there’s two people in this relationship then things would be better and i wouldn’t have a reason to moan.Obviously I don’t expect her to do everything I ask,that’s completeky unreasonable,but the constant inability to realise that the problems lie in what she is doing and not everywhere else has led to the complete breakdown of our relationship,to the point of me having to leave

  19. Nev says:

    What should be done then with a friend of 8 years who has bipolar and who has time and time again failed to curb their violent behaviour despite being medicated and is receiving therapy? I think in this case, you can’t really pin the reason for leaving a relationship on the mere fact that they have bipolar, but because their behaviour has become harmful to your own well-being regardless if they are bipolar/neuro-typical. In this case, it’s not the bipolar individual who is a “victim” as is it often depicted by those who have lost friends because of the illness. As someone who is recovering from PTSD, mental illness does not excuse you from taking responsibility for your actions toward others, especially if it is abusive.

  20. Tanya says:

    I tried politely and sweetly and calmly having a talk like this a few times but it just made things worse between him and I and unfourtunanly we live together so now my mere breathing in the same room as him makes him scream ans cuss at me and call me names so I suggest maybe ic its a situation like this and you live with the person maybe just get out and then try .

  21. sandi mercer says:

    My husband flies of the handle for no reason. He has accused me of cheating just because things seemed different to him sex wise. If I text my sister or family he feels like I am talking to someone I shouldn’t. This is getting very stressful. I feel like I am forever walking oneeggshells. I am a God fearing woman and would notthink of cheating on hhim in any way. Once we have a big fight he tells me he is sorry and he won’t do it again only for to to happen just a few days later. Is this a form of bipolar or just a lack of trust. Due is seeing a nuerologust because of seizures and has to wear a 24 hr eeg test. Will this show if there is something going on in his head that will cause this. I love him very much but I am at my breaking point.

  22. FLJ13 says:

    There is nothing more (at the moment – hey, I’m Bipolar) that I hate than the expression “walking on eggshells” when referring to a normal person dealing with a person with bipolar or bipolar with BPD traits, or bipolar + BPD. There’s even a stupid book out with that phrase as the title. It’s crap, BTW, don’t buy it, it’s not written by mental health professionals, but surprisingly bitchy men.

    Anyway, being bipolar, and having been diagnosed for many years (w/BPD aspects), and as you already know, we feel everything so deeply; we love and hate so deeply. Having said that, and having gone through hell and… back here, I prefer “brutal” honesty, and dish it out when called for, as it is clean cut, clear, and precise, and so much easier to deal with. It hits hard and fast. We feel and act hard and fast to try to fix it or heal, or deal. Or is it that I’ve had such a hell of a life that I “need” that? I don’t know other people with bipolar, so what do you other amazing people with bipolar think?

  23. FLJ13 says:

    PS
    I think you’ve got to be as strong as a person with BP in that you can almost match the depth of their emotions, especially love. Don’t walk on eggshells, wear the shoes you feel the strongest in and love.

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